When Stephen Katz breaks out his cello to illustrate a musical point, he often wears an expression somewhere between concentration and delight. If he hits a wrong note or two, he smiles, maybe laughs, and doesn't stop. He's having a very good time. That's probably why he's in such demand—Katz plays solo shows (often using looping), backs up dancers at area shindigs, plays with the Paul Winter Consort, and is musical director of Wire Monkey Dance. He also regularly plays at the New Directions Cello Festival, where he teaches some of the techniques he's developed for the instrument.
In a recent interview, Katz revealed that he began his musical life wanting to be a drummer. "I loved rhythm in pop," says Katz. "I played drums with a pillow and a box." But his mother talked him out of such a loud, non-melodic instrument. That led to the cello, says Katz: "I started playing chamber music before I really knew what anything else was."
Later, he discovered guitar, and found a lot to like. "When I got a guitar I could play rhythms, which is what I loved about music," he says. Even so, Katz says, he eventually decided to study classical cello in college, rather than focus on guitar.
Katz, originally from San Francisco, got an invite to audition for a quartet at UMass-Amherst, and came to New England to join the group in 1986. When that group disbanded, Katz taught at a school in northwest Connecticut. His time there offered him a chance to return to composing, and his cello playing went in some quite new directions.
"I started composing things on the cello that were a lot like what I liked on the guitar. And I was a drummer—I thought, 'I'll get one of those mallets for the marimba and bang around on the cello and see what I can do.' I'd done a lot of contemporary music and I knew a lot about making sounds on the cello… music that was close to my heart, but without a lot of heart in it. I wanted to write music that was more basic, rhythmic music, but on the cello."
When Katz picks up his instrument, it's quickly apparent that the strictures of classical methods aren't enough to encompass his imaginings. He doesn't seem to need a bow, and his rhythmic approach has helped him discover new ways to get the sounds he wants. "One day I'm doing this thing, plucking. I found a chord," says Katz. "But plucking like that didn't feel right, so I got one of those mallets, but it was hard to control."
The result of his experimentation was a rhythmic sort of finger-striking that resembles electric bass methods more than traditional cello playing.
Katz explains that, groundbreaking though such styles might have been when he first started using them, the context of contemporary music and the desires of cellists to play in new settings have conspired to make the unusual usual: "Folks like me, listening to contemporary music, pop music, want to make rhythmic music with the cello, and sing with it, and play in bands, put it through a distortion pedal, through an echo or a looping pedal."
At the most recent installment of the New Directions Cello Festival, now in its 14th year, Katz shared one of his methods—a finger-and-thumb near-strum using a big arm motion to sweep across the strings—with other cellists. "I gave a workshop in the technique I came up with that came out of that drumming thing, which I call 'flying pizzicato.' It's limited—I've done two pieces like that, but what's really interesting is when you strum individual notes and keep your arm moving."
When Katz demonstrates "flying pizzicato," it looks much like a guitar player's strumming. But the result is a quick kind of string hit that is downright funky, evoking African rhythmic complexities and even the guitar stylings of players like Habib Koite or Oliver Mtukudzi.
"What I love about drumming, especially native, indigenous African drumming less influenced by contemporary media, [is that the] rhythms are more inherent to the way the body moves. I'm doing it through my arm. That's part of why this approach works for me. Because it's a continuous flow. It's very simple, the premise. The limitations are great. There are only four strings, one hand to tune them while I'm playing, and a thumb and a finger. What are the possibilities? How much music can be made?"
Rather than simply learning how one is supposed to play the cello, he has made the instrument his own with his adventurous style. When he speaks about his playing, Katz often sounds more like a philosopher than a classical musician, and it is his well-thought-out approach that has led him both to new discoveries and to an unusual, engaging style that is a joy to watch in action.
"This instrument was not made for rhythm—it was made for melody in particular, for the bow, which I still use occasionally," says Katz. "But I have wanted to bring those things together. It's what I love to do."